A Geology of the Present

The Earth Indices exhibition

We can read the history of the planet in Earth’s archives. The composition and layering of stones, sediments and fossils provide indications of climactic states, tectonic shifts and ecological conditions in the distant past. The task of geochronology is to classify this planetary deep time, dividing it into sections and identifying moments of transition. By employing this methodology, geologists have written a chronicle of the planet that provides information on the events and epochs of Earth’s history. But what does geology know about the present?

The upheavals in the Earth system over the last decades show that planetary temporalities and dynamics are inextricably linked with social and political processes. The necessity of thinking about planet and society as one proves especially important when it comes to the task of incorporating the Anthropocene into the Earth’s timescale as the current geological epoch. Since 2009, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) has pursued the goal of having the Anthropocene officially recognized as the new geological epoch and thus included in the International Chronostratigraphic Chart. The precondition for this inclusion is the identification of a so-called golden spike: a specific location in the world where the planetary transition from one geological epoch to the next can be clearly seen in the stratigraphic record.

In search of this golden spike for the Anthropocene, geologists are analyzing the most recent layers in the Earth archive. In the process, they encounter tiny traces of chemical, biological and physical residues that point to man-made changes on a planetary scale. In 2019, the AWG commissioned the examination of twelve possible sites for the Anthropocene golden spike. To this end, geological samples were taken, including from the Antarctic ice sheet, the sediments of a northeastern Chinese volcanic lake, corals off the Australian east coast and a peat field on the Polish side of Śnieżka Mountain. In the lower layers of these geological samples, anthropogenic signals are barely perceptible. However, the higher one ascends in the stratigraphic layers—approaching the present—the clearer these signals become.

With the glaring acceleration and globalization of economic growth and ecological devastation, the industrial activities of an increasing proportion of humanity have left a distinctive chemical imprint in the terrestrial archive. In 2019, after ten years of research work, the AWG has come to the consensus that the beginning of the Anthropocene dates to the middle of the twentieth century—the beginning of the so-called Great Acceleration. From this time period onward, the planetary consequences of this “Great Acceleration” on life, the air, the seas, lakes and rivers, and the sea ice and the glaciers have become clearly visible and measurable. For the first time, chronostratigraphers are now faced with the difficult task of defining a geological epoch whose starting point, for some of them, is located within their own childhood.

How can this inextricable interlacing of the researchers and their object be presented? How are the geological materials transformed as they pass through laboratories and the hands of the scientists? What exchange and translation processes lie at the root of the production of geological evidence for the Anthropocene? How is the thesis of the new geological era operationalized—how is the Anthropocene “processed”?

The Earth Indices exhibition is the result of an intensive two-year cooperation between the artists Giulia Bruno and Armin Linke and the many scientist who have participated in the stratigraphic research into the Anthropocene. Bruno and Linke look back on a decade of artistic engagement with the Anthropocene. As early as 2013–14 in their work Anthropocene Observatory, developed together with Territorial Agency and Anselm Franke for HKW, they have explored the effects of the new Earth epoch on societal infrastructures, forms of governance and communities. Since then, the two artists have continuously addressed questions of agency and research in the Anthropocene.

Earth Indices is both an exhibition and an experimental system in which not just the sediments of the new geological era but also the instruments, procedures and practices employed for the production of geological knowledge are made visible. The artists have intensely accompanied the AWG’s investigations, selected documents and materials from the research process and invited the scientists to comment on them. Earth Indices shows photographs, sketches, scans and data sets from all phases of the project, from views of the landscapes where the stratigraphic samples were taken, to recordings of the work processes in the participating laboratories, through to microscopic photographs and jotted-down notes. Low-tech instruments and everyday utensils such as shovels and plastic film stand next to high-tech mass spectrometers and other analysis equipment.

In cooperation with the designer Linda van Deursen, Bruno and Linke have developed a type of registry that precisely allocates the individual documents to a specific position and function in the scientific process. Functioning like large-format index cards, the works that make up Earth Indices register individual elements and moments of the research work. The exhibition, through the inclusion of supposedly secondary details, records the means and processes of production that flow into the scientific establishment of the new geological epoch. In the schematic unification of these elements, this registry highlights the scope and diversity of the available material and, at the same time, the complexity of the exchange process between sediments, laboratories and researchers that forms the basis for the production of evidence.

Overlaying the registry is a delicate, almost poetic, trace of the scientists’ comments, instructions and notes, generated during discussions with the artists. These notes unlock the technical and anecdotal knowledge hidden in the documents and reflect the praxis of the scientists’ own work. The notes are echoes of the intense engagement with the stratigraphic material and the attempt to process the knowledge stored within them—to convert the noise into clear signals. This layering of registry and commentary is the tool that Bruno and Linke use in order to bring the artistic, anthropological and scientific approaches involved in the AWG project into contact with one another.

The symptoms of the Anthropocene are already visible in the different spheres of the Earth system and in society as disturbance, interruption and uncertainty. Until now, there has been a lack of images, languages and grammars with which to make this process understandable and negotiable. Giulia Bruno and Armin Linke’s exhibition is a proposal for filling this gap. In presenting an ensemble of Anthropocene knowledge production, Earth Indices attempts to make the production conditions of the new geological epoch visible and readable.

Katrin Klingan